Dear Grieving Gracie,
Do you ever have trouble with people once you tell them you have a child who died? I don't know if it is the way I say it, but it has happened enough where people I meet start talking with me and I tell them about my family. At some point I tell them I had a son who passed and almost immediately they walk away or lose interest in getting to know me any further. I am hurt and angered at the fact that most people push us away because they don't want to know what it is like to lose a child. I understand that what we are going through is inconceivable by people who have never experienced losing a child, but shunning us is like pouring salt in my wound. Can you help me understand this? - Kim, Bereaved Mother
Being shunned is common among the bereaved, and isn’t limited to bereaved parents and spouses. Although it really hurts to be shunned, try to understand that it comes from a place of deep fear coupled with people simply not knowing what to say. Shunning also exists when someone lacks compassion for things they don’t understand.
The truth is that we don't have to understand something to have compassion for another person’s pain. You should never deny your loved one’s existence at the expense of someone else's comfort. That would be denying who you are, because your loved one will always be part of you.
Those who shun the bereaved don't mean to hurt us, they really don’t. But the pendulum of indifference has swung so far the other way that those of us who mourn the loss of someone we love have been accused of indulging in our own self pity (thanks, Pastor Osteen!). This notion is far from truth.
The problem lies in that shunning the bereaved is a societal phenomenon that boomerangs back to rob society. According to the American Psychological Association, research shows that most people can recover from loss if they have social support. Shunning the bereaved robs them of the support they need to heal and integrate back into society in a meaningful way, and increases their risk for major depression and complicated grief. In turn, this costs our society lost wages, missed work, fractured relationships, and more.
To answer your question about friends, I classify them into circles defined by how accepting they are of us as a bereaved person. Our inner circle is comprised of those in our sandbox who are capable of holding that sacred space when we experience a moment of sadness. They know they can’t fix us, and just love us anytime we need to lay in the fetal position.
The second circle is comprised of dear friends in the sandbox next door who love us but aren't capable of holding that sacred space in our moment of need. They're the ones who suddenly need to get home to water the flowers when we mention our child. They love every part about us, except our grief.
The third circle are those friends who know and like us, interact with us and our families, but aren't comfortable being alone with us for fear that we might mention our child.
The outer circle is everyone else on the playground. They engage with us in the grocery store or at soccer practice but aren't part of our intimate lives and likely don't know our story or sorrow.
Those outside our sacred inner circle will eventually find themselves in need of support. When they do, we'll be there for them because the best teachers lead by example.
And she who heals others heals herself.